On Going Virtual

Michael Katchen, Franklin Furnace Senior Archivist, 1998

This essay is the second of a two part series titled: "The Whys and Hows of Deinstitutionalization," concerning Franklin Furnace Archive. The first part on the whys is presented by Martha Wilson, Founder and Director of Franklin Furnace. The hows are explored by myself, Michael Katchen, archivist of Franklin Furnace.

My paper starts with a description of the circumstances surrounding Franklin Furnace beginning in January 1997, moving to the present, and including plans for the future. There is a brief explanation of what materials constitute our archives and a history of my involvement with the organization. The bulk of the essay concerns two main topics of deinstitutionalization. The most important is choosing, cataloging, and digitally presenting material from our archives, with special emphasis on digital cataloging. Next in importance is downsizing office space and archive storage. These two big issues became inseparable and intertwined. The main plot is constantly interrupted by related sub-plots. It resembles the formula of old Star Trek episodes except there is no way to guess the outcome.

This is the tale of a small not-for profit organization that has survived for 22 years and counting. It's about getting a grant to do something specific, and how that gets done, perhaps in slightly altered, but usually improved form, plus a whole lot more. In this case the whole lot more was our physical move to downsize.

The recent saga begins with a phone call from Martha Wilson sometime late in 1996 when she asks if I am interested in working on an 18-month project. My answer is, of course, yes. I've worked with Martha and the Franklin Furnace for most of my adult life since 1980, becoming accustomed to an employment that follows the ebb and flow cycle of grant monies.

The grant that employs me is to be implemented in 3 phases. Usually you begin with phase 1. Fortunately, we did just that. Phase 1 required me to define and catalog the archives. In January 1997 I began wading through boxes and file cabinets full of stuff, archival stuff. After several months of sorting, the material basically defines itself. Franklin Furnace always prefers to maintain a light touch, like shepherds gently coaxing material into appropriate categories. We came up with 6 categories and several sub-categories.

Once everything is categorized it became apparent that the Program category would be most interesting to the general public. The program files contain written and pictorial documentation of all our events for the last 20 years. Using college interns, Franklin Furnace undertakes a pilot project to further investigate the category of Artist Files. We complete 82 records. The format of these records provide us with the architecture for our present format.

Meanwhile Franklin Furnace has a web site up and running since October 1996. Press articles are appearing about our transformation into an electronic museum. The pressure is on. However, at about this time the New York City Mayoral race is heating up and our webmaster, drag king Murray Hill, is running for office. Due to the rigors of her campaign schedule, our web site is not updated for months. We need professional help to come up with some ideas. So we decide to attend the Museum Computer Conference in Saint Louis, October, 1997.

The conference in St. Louis proves to be beneficial. Some of the highpoints include: meeting with Rick Rinehart of the Berkeley Art Museum, and agreeing to join CIAO (Conceptual and Intermedia Arts Online), and meeting with Steve Deitz of the Walker Museum who is now our database consultant. The ideas and opinions available at the many workshops and sessions offer an incredible variety of ways to interpret and conceptualize our cataloging procedures.

After a few weeks of digesting the St. Louis experience, I attend one more conference titled "School for Scanning", offered by the Northeast Document Conservation Center. This allows ideas that are stirring around in my head to get out into the world, obtain feedback, and gel into a usable substance for the archive. For example: I realize that although digitization is not the best method for preservation, it is the best method for making our archive available to the widest possible audience.

In December, Martha and I meet with our consultant, Steve Dietz to discuss software and cataloging structure. We decide to use a custom configuration of the PC version of File Maker Pro software. We must plan our hardware purchases. During January, Franklin Furnace receives shipment of computer hardware, and a test version of our software program.

It's now February and we are one month past our agreed upon move out date. Cataloging is temporarily halted while we look for and find a new home. Back to Wall Street. We get another month extension on our rent. For the entire month all our energy goes into moving from a 5000 square foot space into 500 square feet. February was also the month of our first performance cybercasts.

March 1998 finds the staff of Franklin Furnace at 45 John St. in the Wall St. area of New York. Our landlord is the Dutch Reformed Collegiate Church who, I think, have owned property in this area for over 300 years. We cleaned out our deep storage facility in Brooklyn where most of our archival material now resides. Currently we are living happily ever after.

Cataloging activity is now at the forefront. Our plan is to inventory every event and accompany it with a single scanned image, something we can put on our website. This brings us to the end of the grant period, and into speculating about the future.

Martha and I agree that the most important part of future cataloging efforts is the metadata that only she and I can assign to it. More elaborate scanning and digitizing can always come later. Stay tuned to the continuing saga.